Looking back over the first decade of my life might cause a reader to believe I was of all people most miserable. Was I really that weighed down by judging eyes? Did I constantly feel guilty about something? Well, yes and no. My neighborhood in Canarsie was about 45% Jewish, 45% Catholic (mostly Italian, but also some Irish and Puerto Rican), and the rest Protestant: mainline, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal varieties. That equals a lot of guilt, but I doubt I felt more guilt than my Catholic neighbors.
I know for sure I felt less guilt than Ralphie across the street. He was Italian. One year, probably during Lent, which we fundamentalist Protestants avoided religiously, Ralphie got hold of a couple of two-by-fours and some plywood. Using his dad’s hammer and some nails, he fashioned a cross just about his size. The workmanship was not bad for a kid of eight or nine.
Ralphie took his cross door to door asking those who answered if they would nail him to it. He carried the hammer as well, and even some nails. Ralphie thought of everything. I’m not sure whose mom talked him out of it. It could have been Mrs. Sullivan, whose Catholicism was devout but didn’t extend to severe masochism. It could’ve been mine, who believed Catholics were going to hell anyway. I know neither I nor any other members of the 93rd Street Gang tried to talk him out of it. We just wanted to watch what happened.
We Protestants weren’t supposed to feel guilty—something about Martin Luther and justification by faith—but we did anyway because we were constantly reminded we were “only sinners saved by grace,” emphasis on the “only.” I never questioned how we could be justified and guilty at the same time. Of course, I never questioned how Clark Kent could be Superman at the same time either. Theology is best left to someone other than preteens.
I never understood why the Jewish kids in the neighborhood felt guilty. Their religion seemed so much more laid back than mine. Good religious Jews went to temple, or they didn’t. Drinking and smoking were personal choices, not evidence of deep personal failure or worse: backsliding. Still, my Jewish friends talked about feeling guilty a lot. Could it have been the level of blame we Christians placed upon them for killing Jesus, as if an oppressed people could have exerted such political pressure on their oppressors? Were they ashamed of having extra holidays or missing out on the joy of ham? I wonder whether some held survivor’s guilt inherited from every grandfather or great-aunt who escaped Eastern Europe in the 1930s and shared basement apartments with memories of those who were left behind. I never asked.
Jewish holidays brought all the kids together in Canarsie’s public schools. Sure we had Christmas off, but that was like winter break. Easter week was like spring break. But Jewish holidays were real holidays. Jewish kids got off school, and, since half the class was out, the rest of us basically got the day off.
And then came Hanukkah. Practicality dictated that New York City Schools couldn’t shut down for a week at Christmas and a week before that for Hanukkah, so everyone went to school and partied.
P.S.114, where I attended first through sixth grade, had the best Hanukkah parties. We ate lots of candy, listened to the Jewish kids talk about getting eight days of presents, and we played with dreidels. Kids in Jewish nursery rhymes claim to make these little square tops out of clay. At P.S.114 they were made of plastic. By means of the Hebrew letters on the four sides, two things occurred: you learned some of the Hebrew alphabet and you could gamble for candy.
P.S.114 in 2019
The Yiddish word for the candy we gambled for at Hanukkah parties is “gelt.” I think it comes from the gold candy coins given out for the holiday. Gelt brought out the gambler I never knew was in me. Every Hanukkah I’d wait for the dreidels to come out in our classrooms. Spin and take seemed to be my middle name, making my Jewish friends jealous. By the time those eight sacred days (and eight crazy nights) were over, I had a candy stash that would make the annual box of Louis Sherry Christmas Sunday school chocolates from Grace Church seem paltry and sad. I don’t know if I ever earned the title “mensch” from my schoolmates, but I was sure one lucky goy.
Years later, I parlayed my dreidel experience into Saturday night poker games at Jonathan’s house. I don’t remember who played there regularly, I only know I was the sole Gentile and that none of us ever had a date on Saturday nights, or Fridays either. Poker was our social contract.
I was generally as lucky at poker as I’d been at dreidel. Most times I’d walk home from Canarsie’s west-of-Remsen side in the wee hours of Sunday morning, my pockets bulging with pennies, nickels, and a dime or two. Along the way I’d stop at a stranger’s doorstep and tuck my winnings under the mat. I couldn’t keep it. I’d feel guilty.
Next episode: take a trip with me to the wonderful place known as "Animaland."
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